Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926, is a fun, bizarre, and very unique novel about a woman who decides to escape the boring everyday life women were supposed to lead at the time, and does so by becoming a village witch.
I had to read this book for my Literature in History II module, the main module for first year students in the English Literature course at UEA. It’s particularly interesting that this book was chosen for this semester ’cause the theme of the reading list is realism, and this novel is somewhere between realist and supernatural. We had some really good discussions in our seminar about whether this book should be considered realist or not; ultimately we came to the conclusion that it depends on how you read it.
The first half of the book follows the main character Laura, also known as ‘aunt Lolly’, as she basically just finds herself bored at her daily life. The narrator is snarky at times, criticising Laura’s surroundings and adding a lot of humour to the story. Laura very much dislikes the idea of getting married and having a traditional life as a housewife, and instead of giving in to her family’s attempts at finding her a husband, she walks around town looking for strange herbs, buying plants, and reading books about witchcraft. Just your typical 20s woman!
The book takes a more bizarre turn when she finally (and kind of spontaneously) decides to leave her old life behind and move to a different village on her own. This is where the story goes more toward magical realism: as a reader, you wonder throughout the rest of the book whether all these weird things are actually happening to her, whether it’s the author’s way of being quirky, or whether it’s all in Laura’s head and she’s gone crazy. I think the latter idea brings up the fact that lots of women in earlier centuries developed mental illnesses because they had no opportunities to do anything exciting, and their boredom literally drove them insane.
Another really interesting point is that the story can be read as pretty freakin’ gay. The fact that the main character refuses to get married and doesn’t seem to find men very interesting is already kind of telling, but then there is this marvelous passage:
They whirled faster and faster, fused together like two suns that whirl and blaze in a single destruction. A strand of the red hair came undone and brushed across Laura’s face. The contact made her tingle from head to foot. She shut her eyes and dived into obliviousness – with Emily for a partner she could dance until the gunpowder ran out of the heels of her boots.
I mean … honestly? If that’s not in-your-face-Laura-likes–women, I don’t know what is. Especially if you consider that she mentions multiple times throughout the book that she doesn’t like public events and isn’t very social; the moment she gets to dance with a cute girl she suddenly wants to dance forever. And of course there’s also the author’s private life – Sylvia Townsend Warner fell in love with a woman in 1930 and they lived together until her partner died in 1969.
This was not my favourite read of the semester, but it made the top three, and I am definitely going to keep my copy, because I absolutely love it. The writing is great, the story is fun, and the main character is extremely likable. I don’t want to be that person who brings up MBTI, but I think Laura might be an INFJ, because I have rarely identified with a character this much. It got to a point where I started to think the book was about me. I’m pretty sure if I had lived in the 20s, I would have become a village witch too. The only reason I didn’t give this book five stars is that it does take a bit for the story to really get interesting, and while the writing in the first half is enjoyable, reading about Laura’s everyday life can get a bit dull.
And that’s my review! I’m curious to know if any of you guys have read this, or if maybe you’re planning to. Are there any books you would recommend that are similar to this? Let me know!
‘Till next time and happy reading!